Will Joe Hockey’s Great-Grandkids Thank Him?

Christine Winter takes a look at intergenerational justice and asks “what will future generations think of today’s politicians?”

Image Sourced: International Monetary Fund

Australia’s Treasurer is correct in articulating moral obligations to limit burdens on future generations. He’s right the living must not unfairly encumber them. He is absolutely right that we must guard against moral corruption and the temptation to unfairly enhance current lifestyles at the cost of poorer lives for our children and grandchildren. His rhetoric, however, does not marry with some of the Government’s actions.

When Treasurer Hockey appeals to a moral duty to avoid saddling future generations with an excessive debt born of government profligacy, he’s advancing a call on intergenerational justice.

Articulating a willingness to share the benefits and burdens fairly between the communities of living people and yet-to-be-born is an admirable and far-sighted vision for a politician. Is he genuine?

What is the current government’s record at the intersection of intergenerational justice and the environment? People depend on the environment to sustain their lives—physically, emotionally, culturally and spiritually. The lives of future generations, like ours, will interconnect with and be immersed in the ecosphere. Without a healthy environment future generations’ opportunities will be reduced in many ways.

The Environment Minister must balance clamoring demands for economic growth against the needs of the yet-to-be-born. But there’s a blinding disconnect between the intergenerational rhetoric of the Treasurer and environmental policy decisions of our government. Here are a few examples.

Day one in the job, Environment Minister Greg Hunt disbanded the politically independent Climate Commission — perhaps the most inter-generationally focused government body. The Commission’s role ¬was to inform government so it could shape policies for future generations: to protect them from the unfair costs (physical, psychological, cultural, spiritual, financial) of climate change.

Climate change is the quintessential intergenerational dilemma: entangling our current quality of life with demands for collective action, distant spatial and temporal consequences, alongside avarice and moral corruption. Unless curtailed it will push extreme burdens on the voiceless unborn.

Having silenced the independent voice of the Climate Commission, in July 2014 the Australia’s carbon pricing mechanism was repealed enabling current generations to enjoy artificially cheap benefits from burning fossil fuels. Prime Minister Abbott lauds this as his standout contribution to the women of Australia. The ‘tax’ reduced greenhouse gas emissions and latest reports show a significant post-repeal increase. So while the housewives of Australia may benefit from low cost electricity, future Australians will have to cut deeper and quicker to bring emissions in line with international obligations.

Instead of investing in innovative new energy projects — projects that will ensure future generations have access to cheap clean energy sources — the government is ‘negotiating’ with cross benches to wind back the Renewable Energy Target. It’s made massive budget cuts to ARENA, the body responsible for supporting renewable energy innovation. Is the Government confused about intergenerational duties?

Simultaneously, the Government has been actively and aggressively encouraging coal and CSG extraction despite global wind-backs and evidence that to protect future generations 80-90% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain underground. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, coal is not good for the future of humanity.

The Environment Minister has removed ‘green tape’ by handing environmental consent decisions to States alone. Future generations may well cry foul — States dependent on extractive industry revenues frequently ignore long-term consequences for short-term gains — employment, (temporary) economic benefits and re-election.

The 2014 Budget cut $10 million from the nationwide network of Environmental Defenders Offices. These offices advise and enable individuals and community groups to mount legal actions to protect and maintain the environment in its current form for both the living and future generations. Removing funds deliberately cripples them — it seems the Treasurer wants future generations to sacrifice for the living.

Has the Prime Minister demonstrated greater commitment? No. In addition to trumpeting the repeal of carbon pricing and lauding the benefits of coal, he vigorously prosecuted a world first and attempted to persuade UNESC to delist a tract of the Tasmanian World Heritage Park once more exposing ancient old growth trees to ravaging chainsaws. World Heritage status specifically protects areas of outstanding beauty and benefit for future generations. UNESC resoundingly ridiculed the government’s application and declined. Another disconnect with the Treasurer’s appeal to intergenerational justice.

The Treasurer, Prime Minister and Minister for the Environment are each actively pushing environmental cost burdens into the future. Future generations will face the costs of coastal protection and relocations as sea levels rise and increasing health costs as disease vectors migrate further south and heat waves increase. It is they who will struggle to feed and water themselves from shrinking and/or poisoned reservoirs, aquifers and arable acreages. They will suffer the loss of culturally significant sites and memorials, face critical infrastructure breakdowns, and costs for repair and relocation. It’s they who’ll have to cope with mass population movement and potential security challenges; wild fires, wild storms and hurricanes, flooding and destruction; and loss of so many habitats and species with which the living currently have the opportunity to (inter)connect.

An extreme view might be that this government is at war with future generations. At the least it is a case of willful neglect. So far, the major environmental policy initiatives and actions of this government demonstrate no commitment to intergenerational justice.

Either Joe Hockey is the only member of this Government committed to future generations, or he is being disingenuous, or he’s cynically harnessing an emotional appeal to justify unpopular policy to suit his own inter-generationally unjust agenda.

What will his great-grandkids say?

Christine Winter is a SEI PhD Candidate from the Department of Government and International Relations, The University of Sydney. Christines PhD research is Christine is looking at how intergenerational obligations and duties are manifest in some Aboriginal, Māori and Amerindian communities and how they can inform a capabilities approach to intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of those peoples, and examines the entanglements of Indigenous Peoples, their compatriots, future generations, nonhuman and the physical environment through the lens of Intergenerational Environmental Justice (IEJ).